Tag Archives: metamorphosis

Change and Transformation in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this Shakespearean comedy. Before diving into the text, I read a quick synopsis online, which said that this is considered to be the first play that Shakespeare wrote. It’s also considered to be one of his worst plays. Granted, the ending did make my eyes roll, but that said, even a bad Shakespeare play is better than a lot of other stuff I’ve read.

The theme of change and transformation really stood out for me when I read this, so I decided to focus my blog post on this concept.

The importance of change and transformation is made evident immediately by Shakespeare naming on of the main characters Proteus, after the Greek sea god associated with mutability.

Some who ascribe to him a specific domain call him the god of “elusive sea change”, which suggests the constantly changing nature of the sea or the liquid quality of water in general. He can foretell the future, but, in a mytheme familiar to several cultures, will change his shape to avoid having to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing the beast. From this feature of Proteus comes the adjective protean, with the general meaning of “versatile”, “mutable”, “capable of assuming many forms”.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Early in the play, Proteus claims that his love for Julia has changed him on a deep level.

Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.

(Act I; scene i)

But true to his nature, Proteus changes his mind, and decides to disregard his love for Julia in the pursuit of his desire for Silvia, whom is the object of his friend Valentine’s love. Proteus betrays his friend to the Duke (Silvia’s father), who with a twist of irony, asserts that he believes that Proteus is trustworthy and constant in his love for Julia.

And, Proteus, we dare trust you in this kind,
Because we know, on Valentine’s report,
You are already Love’s firm votary
And cannot soon revolt and change your mind.

(Act III; scene ii)

In addition to Proteus’ mental transformations, Shakespeare also has Julia go through a gender transformation, where she takes on the appearance of a young boy. When she finally reveals herself to Proteus, she claims that love makes women change their shapes and men change their minds, which I interpret to mean that men have a tendency to lust after other women, and that, women in order to maintain a man’s interest, must constantly be transforming their appearances to make sure they remain attractive.

O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush!
Be thou ashamed that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment, if shame live
In a disguise of love.
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

(Act V; scene iv)

There are many more examples of change in the play to support the overall theme, such as the use of the chameleon as a metaphor, changes in music that is being performed, changes in appearance, and people changing their minds. Obviously, Shakespeare knew what we all know, that the only thing that is constant is change.

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“Fergus and the Druid” by William Butler Yeats

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Fergus. This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head

Druid. What would you, Fergus?

Fergus. Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

Druid. Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman’s loved me, no man sought my help.

Fergus. A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.

Druid. Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

Fergus. I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

I really like this poem . First off, I like how it is written as a dialog, almost like a slice out of a play. It reads nicely and the cadence and flow of the verse is beautiful.

The poem begins with Fergus following the Druid amid the rocks as the Druid goes through a series of metamorphoses. I see two interpretations for the rocks: first, they could represent stone circles, similar to Stonehenge where the Druids would have worshiped; but the stones could also refer to Fergus being in a cemetery, contemplating his mortality and seeking answers to his life.

When the Druid assumes his human form, Fergus expresses his desire to relinquish his rule and bestow it upon Conchubar. I had to do a little research to determine the relationship between Fergus and Conchubar. Basically, according to the mythology, Fergus fell in love with Ness and Conchubar was Ness’ son from another marriage. So this seems to tie in to the archetype of the connection between the death of the king and the assumption by the son to continue the earthly cycles, such as explored by Frazier in The Golden Bough.

In addition to relinquishing rule as king, Fergus seeks knowledge from the Druid. The Druid seems reluctant to grant Fergus his request and points out how he is burdened by his knowledge. There is a parallel here. Fergus is burdened by the weight of the crown while the Druid is burdened by the weight of his knowledge. In the end, the Druid grants Fergus his wish and gives him a “little bag of dreams,” which ultimately opens the doors to Fergus’ mind and allows him to see into his own future, seeing all that will be.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

In the end, Fergus is overwhelmed with sorrow as a result of his knowledge. He no longer has any hope and life is now void of all mystery. He sees only the inevitable future which is the “small slate-coloured thing,” his own gravestone.

It seems as if Yeats is giving us a little warning here. The pursuit of knowledge is something that should not be taken lightly, especially occult knowledge which allows one to peer through the veils of mystery. One must be fully prepared to face the hidden knowledge, which is often hidden for a reason.

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Ice Symbolism in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Image from Princeton.edu

Image from Princeton.edu

This is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to do something worthy of the milestone. I decided to re-read and write about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favorite poems. The poem is long and rich in symbolism, and I could easily write a dissertation on this one poem. But for brevity’s sake, I will focus on one aspect: the metaphor of ice.

I feel that ice is a key metaphor in this poem, especially since it figures prominently in the title. Rime is defined as “an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind.” So what make rime so unique is that it is the metamorphosis of gas to solid, bypassing the liquid state. Essentially, this would be symbolic of the transformation of spirit to flesh or matter.

Ice makes it first appearance in the poem at line 51:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!

The ice here seems both beautiful and frightening. The crystal structures create a stunning landscape, but also represent a dangerous place. Below the surface, hidden ice waits to tear into the hulls of ships. I see the ship as a metaphor for the journey into unknown regions. The land of ice represents the realm of imagination. I therefore interpret this passage as the mariner’s voyage into the mystic, a wondrous place where the images of the world are reflected and fractured. But a mariner must remain safe within his vessel, otherwise he becomes lost in the labyrinth of ice and cannot return to the realm of reality.

It is while in the land of ice and snow that the albatross appears, guiding the ship through the mists and clouds. I see the albatross as a spirit guide whose purpose is to lead souls safely through the mystical realms of imagination, ensuring they do not get lost. But the mariner, for no apparent reason, kills the albatross. He shows no emotion and has no remorse. Essentially, his soul has been iced over and his heart is frozen. It is a cold and senseless act that displays a complete disregard for all things divine and holy. This begins the ship’s descent into horror and the darker realms of the imagination.

It is only after the mariner begins to feel a sense of remorse that the ship begins to move again and the divine beings return to guide the ship safely to port. The rime that coated the mariner’s heart is melted away when he realizes that his actions have consequence and that all living things, instilled with the divine spirit, are deserving of love and reverence. He reiterates this belief toward the end of the poem.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’

I’ve often wondered why the mariner chose to recount his tale to the wedding guest. After this reading, I’ve come to believe that it is because the wedding guest is displaying the same coldness of heart that was in the mariner. The mariner sees this and chooses the guest. Likewise, the guest recognizes the mariner’s past iciness resides within himself, which adds to the fear that he feels as the mariner unfolds his tale.

Lastly, the mariner knows that unless he relives his experience through the retelling of his tale, he is at risk of returning to his cold, unfeeling state. The rime over one’s heart and soul forms quickly and silently. It is only by exposing the darker regions of one’s memory to the light that one can prevent the icing over of emotion.

I have only scratched the surface of this poem. There are so many images and metaphors which one could explore, it would be easy to write an entire book about this one poem. I encourage you read it, and if you have read it before, read it again. I have no doubt that you will discover things that you missed in your previous readings.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, go to a local bookstore and buy a copy of Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the money and you’ll be supporting your local bookseller.

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